the hidden reasons why you might not like yourself



You have to see it to be it. — Billie Jean King


In the upcoming book, What Will It Take To Make a Woman President?, Maya Angelou says this:

If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman and won’t mind the enslavement.

The second thing you must do is convince your allies that the person is subhuman, so that you have some support.

But the third and the unkindest cut of all is to convince that person that he or she is not quite a first-class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator can go back years later and ask, “Why don’t you people like yourselves more?”


How we see ourselves reflected in our environment shapes our sense of who we are — and by extension, what we’re worth.

In 1981, a Harvard psychologist named Ellen Langer performed a study on two groups of men. Each group spent a week in isolation at a New Hampshire monastery that time-traveled them back to the 1950s.

The first group was told to pretend that they were young men again, living in 1959.

The second group was told to simply compare memories and talk about that era.

As this article reports:

Both groups were surrounded by mid-century mementos—1950s issues of Lifemagazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio—and they discussed the events of the time: the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Castro’s victory ride into Havana, Nikita Khrushchev and the need for bomb shelters.

There was entertainment (a screening of the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart) and spirited discussions of such 1950s sports greats as Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson. One night, the men sat glued to the radio, listening as Royal Orbit won the 1959 Preakness. For the second group it brought back a flood of memories; for the other group, it was a race being run for the first time.

…. [The results] surprised even her own team of researchers.

Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board. Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis. But the men who had acted as if they were actually back in 1959 showed significantly more improvement. Those who had impersonated younger men seemed to have bodies that actually were younger.

….. “Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow,” she told an audience of nearly 400 at a recent lecture. Her results, she knows, can push the limits of credibility, but she revels in that space: “At the end of the [monastery] study, I was playing football—touch, but still football—with these men, some of whom gave up their canes,” she tells the audience.

“It is not our physical state that limits us,” she explains—it is our mindset about our own limits, our perceptions, that draws the lines in the sand.


In a recent blog post, Heather Plett asks: Am I really ready to trust the feminine, or will the plane crash?:

She is referring to an anecdote about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

It goes something like this: Tutu gets on a plane and sees that the pilots have the same color skin as his own. My people are flying the plane, he thinks with triumph. We’re making progress!

Then, in the air, they hit turbulence. As the Archbishop feels the ragged drop and lurch, he suddenly wonders if these pilots are worthy of the task; if they’re about to crash the plane.

Plett recognizes the same kind of conditioning in her secret doubt about the feminine. She admits she feels more validated when the person praising her work is a man:

Though I’ve been a feminist for almost as long as I’ve known the definition of the word, I serve on the board of a feminist organization, I’ve fought my way through the glass ceiling to senior leadership positions, and I write and teach a lot about women’s leadership, there still remain some instinctual, deep-rooted beliefs that I am not fully worthy because I am a woman.

Or… Let me correct that… It’s not simply an unworthiness of me as a woman (because I’ve gotten quite used to women in power, have been in positions of power myself, and don’t think I have any deep-seated issues that I need to excavate in that regard). It’s more of a sense that the feminine (whether it appears in women or men) is not quite worthy of power.

Is this so surprising?

Walk through a day, any day, with a scientist’s eyes. Observe and listen. Pretend this culture is a giant gender experiment, much like the one by Ellen Langer that reshaped the experience of aging through the power of suggestion alone.

How are we, as the participants in this experiment, cued to think about men?

How are we cued to think about women?


Some people will argue that the differences between men and women are biologically rooted, and I believe that up to a point.

The problem is how we can know, exactly, where biology leaves off and the environment kicks in. When nature itself favors diversity (so people will be wildly different even from girl to girl and boy to boy), and the environment influences the mind so strongly that the body physically changes as a result.

It would be fun to alter the experiment a bit.

Pretend that all those scantily clad, provocatively posed young women that you see in ads, billboards, movies, magazines and music videos were being celebrated for courage, strength, accomplishment, and daring.

Pretend that all those blockbuster summer movies centered around the girlfriend, which would mean that she was no longer the girlfriend but the protagonist, maybe even a hero.

Pretend that any American history class paid almost as much attention to Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth as it does to Martin Luther King.

Pretend that women as powerful as Janet Reno or Hillary Clinton were treated with respect and even reverence in the media – or at least without verbal abuse.

Pretend that a traditionally female profession such as teaching was just as prestigious and lucrative as a traditionally male profession such as law.

Pretend that the major religions showed people a God equally recognized as feminine and masculine, Mother as well as Father.

Pretend that the word ‘cunt’ actually wasn’t an insult that both genders hurl not just at women but also men (whereas I have yet to hear a woman accused of being a dick, or some other representative of male genitalia.)

Pretend that women were just as encouraged to fulfill their creative and professional ambitions as they are to ‘opt out’ and stay at home, and that men were just as encouraged to take paternity leave and bond with their infants and young children.

Pretend that Jonathan Franzen was openly thrilled when Oprah chose his novel THE CORRECTIONS for her Book Club, because he respected “midwestern housewives” as an intelligent audience.

Pretend that the hard and gifted work of motherhood was recognized financially, and not just given lip service.

The results could be very interesting.


I wrote a blog post entitled: What if girls were rewarded for being authentic instead of being thin?

In the comments section, a smart and sassy young woman said:

The designer in me that’s sat through lots of branding meetings makes me think we either need a new word; or that “feminine” needs a good re-branding. I’ve never liked the word much. Practically by definition it means small, delicate, (delicate i.e.: breakable). I prefer the word “womanly” myself. Seems to have a bit more weight and power with it.

What she was asking strikes me as another version of this: Am I really ready to trust the feminine or will the plane crash?

I will leave you with my response:

This culture is built on a contempt for the feminine, which means it needs to perceive the feminine as exactly how you described: weak, frivolous, girly, etc.

We could switch to another word (womanliness is a good one) but it still doesn’t change this idea that feminine = weak, and so long as that idea is still out there, the damage will continue to be done.

Even women (some women) learn to distance themselves from ‘the feminine’ — to mock it, to disdain it, all those bad jokes about Lifetime movies – in order to align themselves with power or identify themselves as powerful. Which, when you think about it, is a rather neat mindfuck….to be a woman who is essentially disowning her own womanhood.

Thing is, if you look at depictions of femininity before patriarchy whitewashed and downsized it, you can see that it was actually pretty badass (as represented by goddess figures like Inanna. She rocked it.) I’d like to see it not rebranded so much as reclaimed, filled out, made whole. Imagine what it would be like if ‘feminine’ was a concept that inspired you and made you proud — what that might do to your sense of self.

Now that would be a revolution.

Dec 21, 2013

11 comments · Add Yours

I’ll add my 2 cents: wouldn’t it be cool if the culture shifted enough to re-examine classic feminine roles and re-evaluate their worth. If society appreciated just how difficult it is to raise solid & decent citizens of the world, raising children to be competent adults would gain some cred. & women would benefit since it is women-mostly-who have raised children. Not all do this job well & that may be tied to the value this job has been given by western culture. Anyone can do it-no, anyone can birth a baby but not everyone can successfully parent one.


If femininity itself was valued more, all the things equated with it — like motherhood — would be valued more.

I just added a line about motherhood.


Justine, I am addicted to your writing. Each post is simply breathtakingly beautiful, powerful, and so darn smart.

For all those who think the ascent of women is turning the world upside down, I say, we are simply turning it back aright. But it’s a long slog and we are in the middle of such a profound shift that as you say has to happen inside our own minds and self-images first.


@justine musk

Cool-we know how important this job is and we also know the women – mostly -who do this work suffer from a lower self esteem imposed by society who regards this work as inconsequential….


The last 3 sentences say it all… rebranding -making it something to be proud of again instead of something that is weak or poked fun at. The feminine IS powerful. It’s not powerful in the way masculine is powerful and that’s where the disconnect comes in I think… because the masculine version of power is the version that is woven into our society and all around us. But…once one fully understands the power of the feminine – and how beautifully it compliments the masculine (not cuts it away or down) and can help our world – that is where the magic and motivation lies to start this revolution.


Just last night I encounted a situation where I was at a small country Xmas cricket break up. I was standing with a few friends having a chat. One of the husbands of the women in the group came up and started to comment that this was like a little mothers group… Then a moment later he announced he’d had enough mothers group in a joking way and headed off, we kinda laughed but I was pissed off. He walked over to a group of men and I knew he was going to refer to the mothers group joke again, and sure enough a few of the men laughed and turned in our direction, so I stuck my finger up at them in a gesture to say fuck you, a bit of shock on some of their faces, a few gave a nod of good on ya… That don’t buy into that shit. But again it was the belittling of women’s conversations to mens.


I love when I have been unable to articulate something and the perfect thing shows up at the perfect time and does it for me.

Wait until you see what I am creating next year.

RECLAIMING is word I was at a loss for. Thank you!


I’ve typed/retyped about 5 different versions of way too personal stories for comments. So I’ll just say – you’ve given me my word/theme for 2014. Not so much a resolution as a thing I want more of in my life. “Reclaim the feminine” is going to be my goal this year. But I think I’m going to start now. Thank you for this winter solstice post, Justine!


The first eight hears of a child’s life and bingo, that is how it’s done. The subtle belittling, the first tests of who’s the bully baby, the worried refrain of uttering inane please and thank you … without often hearing permission to yell and run when bigger/older ones, even those we would love instinctively, begin to disrespect and sometimes drift to actual abuse and molestation.

Be pretty. Be clean. Be polite. Be a good sport. Oh the list goes on and on, defiling and dulling survival instincts and intuition and a lifelong fight to reclaim the oneness of self and the right to _____________.

Parents and schools probably only with good intentions to pass on life lessons along with reading, writing and (the very awful) ‘rithmetic turn out silent from 8 to 3 worried children obsessed with an unnatural order of the world.

Feeling awkward/uncomfortable/ashamed is hidden but real and some will sit quietly,fiddling and pretending to be ok while some express their so real misery by hurting and belittling, one by one and then groups … the weakest as prey.

Getting angry may even need permission in a child’s life, some nurturing to understand how to use that power, how to protect from it. But no, stifling works best in a classroom, tests for a school’s financial benefit not really any individual child because, and oh is this lesson remembered, he/she must be part of the group, THAT matters.

Belatedly angry and contemplative and wishing every child could be taught first to shout loudly, impolitely and live.

All the blissful truths of the world not even absorbed … the lioness and bear mama that will savage anything that threatens their young, the earth as mother in mythology and reality, the archeresses of the goddess world, the native women in the world that squat to deliver a child and resume the long walks and work of their lives.

Come on come on.

Feminine can be very pretty, lipstick and even needle beauty and lace, and has the power, giving it away was a mistake.


@Justine, thanks for another conversation that we all need to have. I think that the issue of undervaluing “womanliness” or femininity goes even deeper than you portray. More happily, though, I predict that the way in which industrialized societies value women will steadily change because they will succeed more.

Writing The Social Channel [] has taken me through several years of research, much of which involved biology, sociology and evolutionary psychology, and my client work involves analyzing thousands of individual conversations on social issues, so I’ll offer a few thoughts for discussion. Bear with me as I reference a few concepts with which to frame my argument.

Among many others, Clotaire Rapaille [] has done interesting work on humans’ “three brains,” and the main thesis is that the reptilian brain is the dominant and most primal brain. Humans like to think that they are rational, but in most cases, the reptilian brain makes the decisions while the cortex rationalizes those decisions. In short, I would not want to bet against the reptilian brain; as “the house,” it has the odds.

In sociology and evolutionary psychology, I’ve learned to appreciate that primates, as other animals and plants, are deeply practical creatures. Since we have these fancy brains, the range of our behavior is exceptionally wide. It takes millennia to change reptilian brains, but the cortex is more plastic, although it’s in the passenger seat.

Humankind is in the process of leaving its third economy, The Industrial Economy, and embarking on its fourth, The Knowledge Economy. As we have “progressed” through the economies, we have changed our attitude toward the earth. During the Hunter-Gatherer Economy, we were most in harmony with our environment (mostly because we hadn’t the tools to be otherwise). During the Agrarian Economy, we started mechanizing and adopting an exploitative attitude toward the earth, but this attitude mushroomed during The Industrial Economy.

The Industrial Economy still frames how genders, professions and roles are valued. Humans have learned to make physical power virtually free, and “raw materials” and waste are handled to maximize profit. Until recently, resources for exploitation have been relatively unlimited, but they are increasingly limited, which will demand collaboration. Power and domination also become prevalent traits during The Industrial Economy, but they have passed the point of being adaptive, although I think they will always be traits of last resort; just look at the animal kingdom; it’s not pretty.

It seems quite clear that “industrial man’s” exploitative attitude has become cancerous, and I predict that we will have to make profound changes to survive. We won’t do this to be “nice” but to survive. We are not a “nice” species, even though we like to think ourselves advanced. Changing attitude will be a complex process, but, notably, we will have to exchange power for collaborative relationships. Collaboration will be most adaptive to succeed in The Knowledge Economy, which is a pervasively networked economy.

As a management consultant, I put a lot of stock in core competency, abilities that tie to an entity’s role in its environment (whether firm, country or person). The probability is that, in social environments, genders will be recognized for their competencies that are tied to their core—and with which competitors (the other gender) have less competency. Where The Industrial Economy rewarded power and domination, The Knowledge Economy will reward collaboration and insight into human experience: human work will be differentiated in the social channel, which is focused on helping humans have experiences, not product features.

Client work has taught me that social context determines how the group perceives the value of its members. And gender core competency matters. These are generalizations, but probability will bear them out in most cases. For example, most groups (think reptilian brain) that find themselves in violent danger in moving vehicles will continue to accept men as leaders in that context because violent, volatile situations are closer to male core competency. Most groups that find themselves having to save lives by healing and motivating will accept women as leaders. Probabilistically. It is a reflection of The Industrial Economy that *overall* gender ideas may value being trusted as a pilot more than they value being trusted as a healer.

In The Knowledge Economy, organizations with female leadership will outperform WHEN leadership practices collaboration in the service of empowering customers to have rewarding experiences (which drive purchase behavior). Even though both genders can collaborate, women will have the edge, probabilistically, because their core competency is more tuned to dialing into how people and groups are feeling.


I was long overdue for my Justine fix.


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